California Today: A Housing Fix That’s Close to Home
Credit Sasha Moravec
One fix to California’s housing crisis could be in our own backyards.
A growing movement of urban planners is pushing policies that would spur homeowners in hot housing markets like San Francisco and Los Angeles to create “granny flats” on their properties.
Known officially as accessory dwelling units, they typically take the form of garage studios or backyard cottages that can be used by an elderly relative or a college-age renter.
Until now, California cities have not taken to the units with the same gusto as other places on the West Coast such as Portland and Seattle. That’s in large part because the cost and red tape involved in building them has been prohibitive for many homeowners.
But in January, legislation went into effect that was intended to change that, by eliminating certain utility connection fees and removing a requirement to add off-street parking for each new unit.
The idea was simple: Make it easier to build the units, then watch the housing stock soar and the rents fall.
“I think we are at a place in California where something needs to change,” said Michelle Frey, executive director of the Urban Land Institute San Francisco, a research group. “There’s no one silver bullet solution. But this is a solution that can help with the problem.”
Those opposed to easing regulations on the units have cited concerns about increased traffic and changes to neighborhood character.
But as the housing crisis has intensified, more city officials have been embracing the small units, said Paul McDougall, a policy manager at California’s housing agency who has been tracking the rollout of the new legislation.
Research suggests homeowners have an appetite for them as well.
In a recent survey of Bay Area owners, roughly a quarter said they were open to building a unit. That would create the equivalent of 400,000 new units, according to the study’s authors.
Yet until now, only a trickle of homeowners have taken the plunge, said Matt Regan, senior vice president of policy at the Bay Area Council, the public policy group that produced the survey.
“Once people get comfortable with the concept, we really feel that we’ll start seeing these balloon across the state,” Mr. Regan said.
Karen Chapple, a proponent of the units and a professor of city planning at U.C. Berkeley, said the economic case was enticing.
She cited her own example. She spent about $100,000 to add a cottage in her backyard in Berkeley in 2011, and has been renting it out for between $1,500 and $2,000 a month. It paid for itself in under five years, she said.
Since then, it’s basically been free money.